I’ve never ridden a bus alone – and other expat child woes

The question of whether it’s good for a child to take them to live overseas is one that has vexed many writers and caused many an argument in expat groups over the years. I have written about it myself and am of the view that while every child and every situation is different, overall the jury is still out on this issue.

But one thing I can say is that there are many hidden costs for our children to this life – especially when it comes to preteens and teenagers. Hidden costs that aren’t necessarily deal-breakers, but that can have an effect on the kids and should be taken into consideration. Some of these things are the reasons why people move home or even send their children to board at home if they don’t have the chance to move.

What sort of thing am I talking about? Well, the sort of thing that most kids their age (I am talking really about the 11-18 age group here) simply take for granted: being able to walk to a friend’s house, riding their bike safely in the street, going to the cinema alone and yes, riding a public bus.

15707802337_f046031c4e_o

Before I go on I should say that I am mainly talking about children from so-called “Western” countries living in so-called “developing world” countries, or other places where hopping on your local bus isn’t really an everyday occurence. I realise this is not every expat and that even some “developing” world countries are as safe as houses so this info doesn’t apply to all. Take what you will and chuck the rest!

So, what about those of us who DO live in a country where it probably isn’t advisable for a child to even walk round the corner to their friend’s house? Well in all honesty this is one of the  reasons why I’m looking forward to returning soon to our home country.

There are so many advantages of living in a country like South Africa but personal safety isn’t one of them. We are lucky and our house is just round the corner from a large shopping mall which includes several large supermarkets. Even so, while I am happy walking round there in the daylight, I would never allow my daughters (aged 11 and 9) to go there on their own. Some may say this is paranoid, after all, you see very small children wondering around alone all over the place here (including very close to very busy roads).

But when you look at the crime stats you realise that, paranoia or not, it’s always better to err on the side of caution.

At her age, back in the UK, my eldest daughter would probably not only be walking to her friends’ houses on her own but taking the bus into town and “hanging around the shops” or whatever it is youngsters do these days. Here, the only public transport we use (apart from planes) is Uber. And I wouldn’t feel comfortable putting her into a car on her own with a stranger, Uber driver or not.

As for bikes, any cycling we do is all under controlled conditions – on specific trails with good security generally. Biking alone on the city roads brings with it double danger – stranger danger as well as road traffic danger. Again, one look at the appalling statistics for road deaths and you know I am not being over-cautious.

7289453810_1d744d0780_o

So while all her contemporaries are starting to gain their freedom, getting out and about with their friends, learning how to be responsible and look after themselves, she is stuck with me organising everything for her, driving her everywhere or arranging lifts, and condemning her to living as an Elementary-school aged child for years to come. It’s tough.

Leaving my children alone at home is also fraught with difficulties. Although we live in a secure house on a secure compound, there are things to think about here that wouldn’t be part of our lives at all back home. What if the electric fence alarm goes off? Do we lock them in for safety’s sake or leave them an easy way to get out in an emergency? And what if – heaven forbid – someone did break in while they were at home on their own? Not only that but dealing with emergencies isn’t quite as straightforward as it is in our home country of the UK. Were one of the children to fall down our very hard, uncarpeted stairs and need to get to A & E it wouldn’t be a case of simply dialling 999 and waiting for the ambulance to turn up. No, it’s all a little more complicated here and I barely trust myself to work it out let alone a couple of pre-teens.

So all in all, living here does without a doubt curtail their freedom. They are still at the age, and we are still at the stage, where it isn’t really a biggie. They’ll both catch up pretty quickly when we get home, just like they will (I hope!) with their maths and spelling.

But with every year that passes I fear they will feel this slightly strange, boxed off life more and more. We all know there are many, many compensations of living here but there does come a point where you have to weigh everything up and decide whether it’s still working for all the family.

We will be back in the UK (semi?) permanently from July, where I intend my children will start living their lives to the full by taking themselves off places alone, using the local bus service, getting trains on their own and doing normal, ordinary things that they can’t here like going to the cinema without an accompanying adult. I know they will miss many things about South Africa, as we all will. But giving up their freedom won’t be one of them.

Photos: Big Red Bus – Tim Spouge, Girls with popcorn – Kymberly Janisch

Advertisements

From dog grooming to making mosaics – finding ways to escape the expat bubble.

We’re all guilty of it. Meeting friends for a coffee. Chatting at school pick up. Organising weekends away. Who are the people we are most likely to do these things with? Other expats.

Now I’m not one of those people who condescendingly heap scorn upon anyone who has no locals amongst their group of friends. From personal experience I know how hard it can be to get close to the natives when you don’t work. Not necessarily because of your own attitudes but often because of theirs: why should they be your friend when you’ll probably be off in a couple of years? Even worse, why should they let their children get close to yours when those friendships will be broken just as they finally trust each other enough with the name of their latest crush? Additionally, you’ve probably got a lot more in common with other expats who, like you, have left behind their home country and culture to strike out on a grand adventure. Even if your expat friends aren’t the same nationality as you (and to me, meeting people from all over the world is one of the best things about this life), they are still likely to have more in common with you than someone who has never left home.

So no I am not against having expat friends. I say grab whichever friendships you can – especially at the start. Loneliness and isolation is a very real and not always acknowledged part of this life, so never feel guilty for making a friend with someone just because they are not a host-country native.

However.

8219989409_bff035f4ef_o

How do I get out of this bubble?

This does not mean you should never leave that safe, expat bubble. After all, isn’t one of the reasons you moved to another country the opportunity to explore a new culture? Won’t you feel slightly cheated if you go home having never stepped out of your comfortable little world? But I know that sometimes doing this can be harder than it sounds. As already mentioned, most locals are not going to be desperate to be your best friend. They will already have circles of friends and/or family and as you get older and more settled, reaching out to new people isn’t always that high up on peoples’ agenda. So don’t expect to immediately gain a whole new circle of best mates from the local populace. It may happen eventually (or it may not, depending on where you are) but you could find it hard to get close to people other than fellow expats in the first year or two.

So, how do you get out of that expat bubble? Well – this is where you need to get a bit creative. Literally, in some cases. What you need is to find something that brings you into contact with nationals from your host country where you will all be focused on doing the same thing and where chat will naturally flow. Something like….ok, this is going to sound weird, but dog grooming. Yes you read that right – and had someone told me even a few months ago that I would have been doing a dog grooming course during my time in South Africa, I would have thought they had been drinking too much of the Kool Aid. But hear me out.

When we first got our puppy Miniature Schnauzer Cooper, we knew that he was a dog that needed a lot of grooming. His hair doesn’t fall out but it grows – fast. He can turn from a perfectly turned out shorn boy to a yeti in what seems like a matter of a couple of weeks. So we got in touch with a local man who comes to the house and does a wonderful job making Cooper look like he’s just stepped out of the puppy parlour. But while we can afford to get this done on a regular basis here, I know that when we return to the UK this is going to eat deep into our pockets. So when the chance to learn how to do it myself came up I jumped at the chance.

And it was so much fun! Run by the professional breeder who sold us Cooper the course was basically a load of middle aged South African ladies (and me) laughing our way through the day. We were each presented with our own dog to practise on and there is nothing like chortling at your sheer ineptness to bond you with a bunch of strangers. Although I was the only “outsider” there, and there was the occasional break into Afrikaans for me to contest with, the fact that we were all there for the same thing meant I was just as included as everyone else. And even though none of those women were ever going to be my lifelong friend, for one afternoon I was emerged in the local culture completely and could almost forget I was even an expat.

img_20161029_134455

My very patient guinea pig….(yes I did that!)

Similarly aother friend (you know who you are) started mosaic classes with a local art teacher. Classes like these mean that with everyone focused on art and not on each other it doesn’t matter whether you were born and bred five miles or 5,000 miles away. Barriers break down and over time real friendships can be formed.

For my children too I have found a great way to get them away from their international school bubble – local swimming classes. Both of my children train at  the high performance centre at TUKS, which is the University of Pretoria’s top class sports facility. So top class that a 2016 Olympic gold medallist also trains there! But most importantly, the girls are surrounded by South Africans. With most of their friends being Americans, Scandanavians, Germans, other Brits etc it’s great to see them  both swimming alongside and chatting with South African children. And sitting as I was with them at 7.30am at the swimming gala on Saturday morning I really got to feel I was taking part in something very South African!

We’re only here for another 8 or 9 months and I still feel like I am just scraping the surface of this country. I know I am unlikely to ever really blend in. But while I am here I am trying to understand the local culture (or should I say cultures – this is a country made up of as many people as any I have ever lived in). I know I could be doing  a lot more – I could volunteer with a local charity or vow to seek out as many local friends as possible. Yet I have to be realistic. There are only so many hours in the day and most of those are taken up with work, looking after the children, shopping, cooking, dog walking – you know, day-to-day stuff. But whilst I realise I won’t ever be completely immersed in this country, I will always have my day of dog grooming!

So get out there, look for those opportunities. And if you find something or if you are already taking part in an activity that helps you to immerse in the local culture please let me know in the comments section below. I’d love to hear what you lot get up to 🙂

Should expat children have a voice?

So you’ve been offered a job overseas. Somewhere I don’t know, quite exciting. New York maybe, or Paris. Or perhaps somewhere tropical and exotic. Mauritius. Or the Caribbean. Anyway it matters not – you’re on your way home, full of excitement. Your partner already knows this offer was a possibility but up until now you’ve said nothing to your kids. You can’t wait to tell them about their new lives – new school – new friends – travel and adventure….

But guess what? When you finally sit them down round the dinner table and break the news, they don’t want to go. So what now?

A while back I wrote the story of how we told our own children (then aged just 6 and 8) that we would be moving here to Pretoria. I can’t pretend it was easy. They were both pretty upset, neither of them wanted to go. Whereas we were excited at the opportunity to live and travel in Southern Africa, all they could think about was what (and more importantly, who) they would be leaving behind. I could feel myself wavering as they sat there in tears in front of us but then I pulled myself together. No, we were going and that was that – as adults that was the decision that we had made for ALL the family and we had to stick with it. We told them we would get a dog and eventually they calmed down. It really was just the shock but once they were used to the idea, life got a lot easier.

Recently we have done all of this in reverse. For reasons mostly related to education we had to make a decision whether to stay another year or leave next summer (SA winter). Everyone in the family – apart from the dog – had an opinion. And, unsuprisingly, not all views were the same. I was caught between the two – knowing that I personally want to stay for the good life that I live here, but that it would be better for the children’s education if we left. I was torn between listening to my heart and listening to my head. And trying to drown out the constant pleas from both children (never mind my wonderful friends here trying to pursade me to stay!). In the end though it was me (with a little help from my husband) who made the final decision – we are leaving next summer – because as the adults only we have the ability to take all the information available to us and put it into the right context for our situation.

575507023_526b804d70_o

No-one wants this reaction when they tell their kids they’re moving abroad…..

But should children have any input into these decisions at all? About whether to move abroad, where to move, which school to attend, which house, when to move home again? Are these decisions only adults can make or does everyone in the family deserve a say? And what do you do if your child eally puts their foot down and says they don’t want to go?

On a recent expat group Facebook discussion about this the view was pretty firmly that the adults needed to be the ones making the final decision. But even within this view there were varying degrees of how much the kids should get involved – as well as how important their needs were. Some people thought it was okay to involve the children in the discussion but not let them make the final call. Others believed it should be presented to them as a fait accompli. Some also thought the needs of the adults – in particular their careers – should overide everything else. I, on the other hand, feel that there comes a time when you need to put education before promotion. And all of this of course depends on the age of your kids – not just as to how much say they should have (it would be slightly weird to ask a toddler if they wanted to move to the other side of the world…) but their educational and social needs.

In the end though as adults we have to make a lot of decisions that won’t be popular – but that ultimately we know (we hope!) is the right one for the family. It’s tough and it’s called responsible parenting. But once the decision if made the most important thing you can do is own it – make it as positive as possible and ensure that you get everyone on board.

Even if that means promising them a puppy.

Photo credit: Marco Nedermeijer

Hey! Parents! Leave your expat child’s stuff alone!

I have been having a little frenzy of tidying over the past few weeks. Piles of toys, outgrown clothes, unloved teddies, random art-work….some days I feel like the house is going to collapse under the weight of all the “stuff” my children seem to collect.

dsc_0034

It’s just “stuff” to us but to them it is their history….

But when it comes to throwing it out – or giving it away – I have a problem. Not only do I have to contend with the girls’ pleas not to get rid of their once-favourite t-shirt or that unopened game they may get round to playing at some point, I also have a little voice in the back of my own head saying: remember how it felt when you were a child? What DID happen to that stuffed hippo? And have you ever really gotten over having your collection of china animals whisked away the moment you left home for boarding school?

But although parents everywhere go through this exact same battle with their kids – what to keep, what to get rid before the stuffed toy collection takes complete control of their bedroom – there is a difference for us expats. Because whilst other children will have continuity in their house, their friends, their schools, their playgrounds and so many other things,  those stuffed toys and random bits of rubbish we could so easily sweep into the bin are the very things that help our children with transition.

Take my youngest daughter, for example. When we arrived in Pretoria just over a year ago we brought with us in our suitcases a set of beautiful fairy lights made of delicate pink roses. She had them hung around her bed at home and used to go to sleep with them turned on (much to the annoyance of her older sister who at that point was sleeping in a bunk bed above her). The first night in our new house we strung them up around her bed and switched them on. She was able to go to bed with something that made her feel immediately familiar. It probably didn’t stop her coming in to us in the night anyway, but it was a start!

dsc_0023

Now, those fairy lights have stopped working. They are looking distinctly bedraggled and so many fuses have blown they don’t work anymore. We were cleaning out her room the other day, sticking some pictures on the wall and sorting out her books. She fingered the fairy-light roses, still delicate but now not quite so appealing. She started to say she wanted to get rid of them but hesitated. Then said no she would keep them for now. I could tell she couldn’t quite move on yet.

Now I could have insisted we get rid of the lights – along with the piles of c**p that stack up on her shelves, in her cupboards, by her bed….but actually when we have taken everything and everyone else away who are we to also take away the things that gives her her identity? The bits of paper with funny little drawings on? Reminds her of the time she and her friends played schools in Year 2. The 45 various stuffed toys? Each one has a history, a place in her heart. The old school books? She looks through them from time to time and it connects her with her past.

dsc_0035

HOW many stuffed toys?

It’s pretty hard being an expat child and if one thing we can do for them is let them keep their stuff then let’s do it. One of the most heart-rending sections in my book, The Expat Partner’s Survival Guide, was a section written by an expat child herself. In it she describes never being able to decorate her room the way she wanted, not having those marks on her wall which show how she has grown. It is a plaintive cry from the heart for a permanence she will never know, and which my own children may also now never know. We all hope that what we are giving them will outweigh what we take away but at this point, in this moment in time, sometimes it is hard for our little ones to recognise this.

So leave their stuffed animals. Don’t throw away all the old drawings. Ignore the books you think they will never read again. It may seem like rubbish to us – but to them, it is the home they carry with them.

 

A Day in My Expat Life: Zambia

Today’s Day in My Expat Life comes to you from sunny Zambia. I am still on holiday in the UK and really starting to miss the sights and sounds of Africa so have enjoyed looking through these photos.

In this entry to my series, Annie Wright of A Wright Adventure (also on Facebook and instragram at awrightadventure) takes us through a day with her three beautiful boys, from sun up to sun down. I can hear those cicadas and smell that dusty road from here!

————–

IMG_20160627_080818

6:30 : Sun rise walk / run to drop big boys of at school bus.

IMG_20160627_081228

7:00 : Breakfast with my baby blue. Although most of his seems to go on the floor.

IMG_20160627_082149

8:00 : Baby blue gets as many toys out as possible!

IMG_20160627_090513

10:00 : Outside play with Baby blue. Picking our strawberries.

IMG_20160627_081745

12:30 : Pick up middle man from nursery. Red dirt roads and Blue skys.

IMG_20160627_082546

14:00 : Lego boy comes home on the bus and bounces with Baby Blue.

20160621_174742

17:45 : Beautiful sun set but it means it is time for insect replant.

IMG_20160627_083253

18:00 : Homework time.

IMG_20160627_090122

19:15: Lego boy reads me a bed time story.

If you want to read more Day in My Expat Life entries then please click here – and let me know if you would like to feature in this series!

A Day in my Expat Life – the Netherlands

Welcome to the latest post in my series about ordinary expat life. Today we hear from Lucille, an expat mum who moved to The Netherlands with her husband and their two boys a year ago. Her husband works for a multinational company and this is their fifth international posting. Lucille and her kids have three nationalities, The Netherlands being one of them, and so are happy to be practicing their Dutch and eating stroopwafels.  

—————————

5h30

5:30am – I’m an early riser, a habit I formed when we lived in South Africa and would go running at 5:15am! In The Netherlands I still try to get up very early so I can work a bit in peace. In the summer it’s light fairly early, and by 7 the sun shines through the window on our top floor…if it decides to shine that day

7h30

7:30am – The kids wake up and come downstairs. I make them breakfast and they sit and eat at the kitchen island while I make their school lunches so we can chat. The school days are so long in The Netherlands – 8:45-3:15 – so these morning chats are an important part of our day.

8h15

8:15am – My brother Jake is visiting from Australia, and so the kids don’t want to get ready for school, and would rather listen to his stories.

8h40

8:40am – We’re off to school, late as usual. Even when my brother is not visiting we are usually late. I am actively trying not to nag my kids in the morning, not to hustle and shout and bribe them out the door. The result is that we are nearly always 5 minutes late for school, but we are relaxed and happy so who cares! When we moved to The Netherlands I decided not to get a car, and to only cycle. My 6 year old cycles, my 4 year old goes in the Bakfiets.

9h15

9:15am – I’m off for a run. I try to go at least three times a week, even if I’m super busy. It’s important to schedule exercise into my week. There are the most beautiful trails around our house. I can run through forests, farmland or to the beach through the dunes which is my favourite run. The weather isn’t always this good!

10h00

10am – This is the beach I run to. It’s sandy and wide and on a sunny day is lovely. It’s 10kms there and back, perfect.

11h30

11:30 – I’m home, have showered and eaten, and it’s time to work. Work is my freelance writing, posting on my blog, or working on the copy writing business I’m starting. I don’t run everyday so usually I start work at 9 after cycling the boys to school. You’ll notice the kitchen is still a bit messy from breakfast this morning, it just has to stay that way for a few more hours! If I don’t start work now, I don’t get enough done by the time I fetch the kids.

2h30

2:30 – Once a week the kids finish school at 2:30pm instead of 3:15, so off I go to fetch them. They attend the American School of the Hague and it’s in a lovely green area. The cycle is really lovely, and only five minutes from our house

2h45

2:45 – On early release days I usually pack a snack and we cycle to a forest (there are a few to choose from) and go for a walk. It’s so important to me that my kids relate to the natural world, I think I’m winning because they get so excited when they see a blackbird or magpie or some cowslip!

4h00

4pm – Monday is football practice. That’s the new American Consulate being built in the background.

5h00

5pm – If (and only if) I’m super organized I don’t need to go to the supermarket after football, but sometimes we stop on the way home to buy dinner. The main supermarket chain is called Albert Hein and it’s pretty fantastic with fresh produce and a wide variety. It doesn’t really compare to Woolworths in South Africa, but I don’t think anything can!

6h00

6pm – Straight home to Uncle Jake who is here from Australia to landscape our garden and who has been working hard all day! I make dinner while the boys play or watch TV. I cook separately for the kids because my husband only gets home late and we eat then. Weekends are our family meal times. That’s the reality of an hour-long commute to the office unfortunately.

6h30

6:30pm – Playtime, bath and story. We all get into one bed and read a story. We just finished The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe, and the boys were utterly enchanted. Now we are reading James and The Giant Peach which is such a great book. I love reading these books for the first time in almost 30 years!!

8h00

8:00pm – That’s it, days done. The boys have been asleep for a while already. I’ve cooked, my husband arrives home and we eat. If I need to finish up some work I do, but we usually watch an episode of something, maybe Outlander or Game of Thrones. I’m usually in bed by 10pm so I can get up early and do it all over again!

Thank you Lucille. The Hague was one of the places we applied for when we got this posting to Pretoria and although I love my South Africa life I can’t but help feel a little envious of this wonderful day with its cycling through greenary and runs on the beach!

Don’t forget to read the other posts in this series by clicking here.

Raising kids abroad: it’s all just a guessing game

There has been a huge debate going on in an expat Facebook group I belong to over the past few days about whether it is right to take children to live overseas.

Started by a woman who is obviously struggling, the post hit such a nerve that within 24 hours she had something like 200 responses. And almost every one of them with a different view. Which just goes to show – no-one really knows the answer.

Some people obviously took huge offence at the notion that it isn’t necessarily in the best interest of the child to take them away from all that they know and love, into an alien environment where they would have to make new friends and find a new routine. To them, their decision to take their offspring abroad was seen as an entirely positive thing. They would be bringing up global nomads who would navigate their lives with a fantstic grounding in world knowledge, an understanding of different cultures and hopefully an extra language or two.

What could be wrong with that, right?

Well of course to many, this wasn’t so right. Others piled in with a totally different story. Loss of identity, sense of not belonging anywhere, losing friends, missing family……there were plenty of stories from the other side of the coin to counteract the rainbows and unicorns thrown around by the first group.

In between of course were plenty of sensible comments made by people who understood that in the end there is no “right” and no “wrong”. That just like pretty well everything when it comes to parenting (apart from maybe making sure your child doesn’t stand too close to the edge of Niagara falls), it’s all just guesswork. It is impossible to know exactly what effect your decisions today will have on your children in the future – you can only weigh up all the considerations and they chose one way. And hope. Not only that, but every family, every child, every situation, is unique. What works for one will not necessarily work for another. And what worked for your child when they were 5 or 6 years old might be a different story when they reach their teen years.

cooling off day one aug 08

Expat life can definitely have its advantages for children….

So should you move abroad when you have children? Well, having been a Third Culture Kid (TCK) myself, and now raising two more, I am not going to say no. But on the other hand I will caution that it is important to know what you are getting yourself into. I don’t agree with those who do nothing but rave about the experience. To me that sounds very defensive and I think there sometimes is a lot of “guilt” (oh don’t we all hate hearing about the parental gult!) behind their comments. Realistically, taking your children away from their home once, or multiple times, is going to affect them one way or another – and you are doing them a disservice to pretend otherwise.

However, so long as you are prepared and know what you are getting yourselves into, I also believe there are at least as many upsides as downsides to doing this – and hopefully in the end, the scales will come down in favour of taking the plunge. At the moment we are struggling with my youngest daughter who, nearly seven months after we moved here, is still unhappy. But on the plus side she has had some of the most incredible experiences that will stay with her for a lifetime, she is learning new languages, has friends from several different countries and been given an opportunity to learn about a fascinating country with a very unique history, first hand.

My other daughter has settled a lot better but there are a lot of issues around her schooling. Moving her into a different curriculum hasn’t been easy and I foresee problems when we move home again.

I, like others, question every day whether we have done the right thing. But there is no point in beating myself up about it – at the end of the day we are here and unless some emergency forces us home, we are staying for the duration. My youngest daughter might be unhappy but she could equally be just as cross at home – but for different reasons. And of course she isn’t always unhappy – she loves her new friends, seeing elephants in the wild, learning to ride a horse, being in the swimming pool for hours on end….

And the older daughter might have gaps in her maths knowledge, but she will have learnt things from being in a school with an international culture that she would never have the chance to back home. She will also have friends in several different countries – who hopefully we will have the chance to visit once this posting is done and dusted.

So what is my conclusion? Well, really it goes back to the title of this post – which is, who knows! It really is just a guessing game and whilst I would love to give you a straightforward answer, I can’t. To take your children to live abroad or to not take your children to live abroad? Well, that really is the question!

Resources: I can recommend two brilliant resources for anyone who wants to know more, both of which I have reviewed on this site: Your Expat Child website and the book Belonging Everywhere and Nowhere: Insights into Counselling the Globally Mobile.

What do you think? Have you taken the decision to move abroad with children and if so was it the right one? Were you yourself a Third Culture Kid and if so, do you think it benefitted you? What advice would you give to others?

back-kuaa-on-kickstarter